Radio Shack TRS-80 vs. Commodore 64: Battle of the Titans

It’s no surprise that two of the biggest competitors in the home computing business, Commodore and Radio Shack, decided to both release their latest computers on April 1. Both computers came by Airborne Express and my editor and I drove to the airport to pick them up and bring them back to the famed Slashdot Labs. Before I get into the details, I want to add that this was a particularly exciting day for us here in Manhattan, because we were able to use one of these computers to create the text for this very article and deliver it directly to the printers for layout and press. So let’s cover these two bad boys and provide a totally unbiased review unencumbered by any alleged kickbacks (including a brand new daisy wheel printer and a case of Schiltz Beer) from Commodore, the maker of the awesome machine known as the Commodore 64.

Unless you’re living in a vacuum tube, you’ve probably seen the ads for the Commodore 64 in various glossy magazines. The ads feature actor William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame. We tried to get hold of him for his take, but he’s busy working on his next movie, which will no doubt earn him an Academy Award for Best Actor.

The Radio Shack TRS-80 ads, meanwhile, feature Bill Bixby, whom you most likely know from his TV series “The Incredible Hulk,” although you might remember him also as the lovable human in “My Favorite Martian.”

In the First Corner

And now, the computers: The Commodore 64 features the latest processor from MOS Technology, the 6510. This isn’t your daddy’s 6500 processor: this 8-bit monster features bank-switched memory to allow for twice the RAM (Random Access Memory) otherwise possible—a full 64 Kilobytes. (A Kilobyte is 1024 bytes; a byte consists of 8 bits of memory, where each bit can be an on or off state.)

The C-64, as it’s being called, also features raster-interrupt graphics, thanks to the graphics technology Commodore pioneered with their earlier VIC-20 computer. (When the VIC-20 came out, we at Slashdot Labs gave it high praise—influenced in no way at all by the cash that Commodore was kind enough to provide.) Packed alongside that 64K of RAM is a full 20KBytes of ROM (Read-Only Memory). ROM memory is a special type of memory that is pre-programmed at the factory, and cannot be changed; it can only be read, but not written to, hence the name “Read-Only Memory.” This ROM is pre-programmed with Commodore’s own version of BASIC, which is a computer programming language that stands for Beginners All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. We found this language a pleasure to work with and easy to use.

The C-64’s graphics processor can display up to 16 colors simultaneously, and it can create a full screen made up of 320 x 200 dots (called “pixels,” which is short for “picture element”). But in order to make use of the full colors, you need to drop the resolution down to half that, i.e. 160 x 200. This is a potential drawback, although we weren’t bothered by it when we saw some of the games running on this miracle of computing power. The graphics chip has built-in capabilities for a new technology called sprites, which are small graphical objects that can be rendered anywhere on the screen in front of the background images. These sprites can be programmed to move around and even double in size. They also provide for something called “collision detection,” where apparently the software program can include code to know if the sprites are touching each other. These sprites have a clear application in games.

And finally, there’s an amazing graphics-chip feature called “scrolling.” You’ve seen scrolling, although you probably didn’t think much about it; specifically at the end of movies when the credits roll up.

The C-64 also includes a third processor built specifically for sound. The 6581 SID (Sound Interface Device) is a full-featured synthesizer chip that gives the C-64 sound capabilities that rival any modern synthesizer keyboard. It features three voice oscillators capable of generating various waveforms, as well as a filter for added effects. Hearing it, one can imagine generating the astounding synth solo in the song “Lucky Man” by Emerson Lake and Palmer—I’m not kidding, this chip really can produce sounds like that spectacular synthesizer bonanza. But this should be no surprise, considering how the chip’s designer, Robert Yannes, credits that song as being a huge influence on his love for a type of music that’s likely to become known as “electronic music.”

In the Second Corner

In the other corner we have the TRS-80 Color Computer. This machine sports the latest from Motorola, the 6809E processor, which (like the 6510) is a full 8-bit processor. Unlike the C-64, which has a fixed amount of memory, the TRS-80 comes with several options, ranging from a miniscule 4K of memory on up to a whopping 512 K of memory. (Prepare to pay a pretty penny for that extra memory that you probably wouldn’t even use anyway.) The model we received had 32K memory. We tried to get a 64K model for a direct comparison to the C-64, but the manufacturer wasn’t able to accommodate the request in time (still waiting for the check, guys!). So take that into consideration as we compare this machine to that astounding monster of processing potential, the C-64.

The TRS-80 Color Computer is also the first in the TRS-80 line to feature full color graphics. Like the C-64, it includes a second processor strictly for graphics, in this case the Motorola 6847. Compared side-by-side, however, the C-64’s graphics are clearly superior, which is no surprise to us considering the nice printer Commodore gave us, along with the beer. The TRS-80 graphics includes a lower resolution (256 x 192 “pixels”), which must be decreased substantially when additional colors are required. Clearly, the breathtaking pinnacle of modern computing known as the C-64 blows the TRS-80 away in graphics alone.

As for sound capabilities, the TRS-80 does sport some sound, but nothing like the sheer brilliance of the C-64 that is quite literally music to our ears. The TRS-80 has a limited sound chip called a “digital to analog convertor.” This transforms digital data into analog sounds or some such nonsense, allowing for some basic, rudimentary sounds. The clear winner? We probably don’t even need to tell you, although we will anyway since it’s our job to tell you what’s best and thus deprive you of any sense of personal opinion. The terrifying but wonderful Commodore 64 is again the clear winner again here.

The Software

Both computers—the mind-blowing C-64 and the somewhat bland TRS-80—feature their own version of the language we mentioned earlier, BASIC. In fact, the two versions are virtually identical. Nevertheless, the company paying top dollar for that ad you see to the right, Commodore, has created a more spectacular version of the language. Therefore, the award for BASIC must go to the C-64. William Shatner is always right, after all.

Using the BASIC programming language, people who devote their task to creating programs (they call themselves “programmers”) have created a great deal of programs for both computers. We tried many different programs, including word processors (which turn your computer into a typewriter of sorts), and spreadsheets (a new technology that is likely to be patented and fought over for years), and even games. The TRS-80 has more business-type applications such as the word processors we mention, whereas the C-64 has more games, which is no surprise considering its breathtaking graphics and awesome sound that clearly make it a much better computer than the TRS-80. Just ask that master thespian himself, William Shatner.

The Final Choice

The TRS-80 is a clear contender in the home computing market. But one thing is obvious: It’s more suited to the nerdy kid down the street who will likely never get a date and will never move out of his parents’ basement or get a life. Sure, he may go on to form a company with a silly name like Microsoft or Apple, and he might make more money than seems humanly possible (millions of dollars), but his choice of computer clearly can’t stand up to the awe-inspiring Commodore 64. If you’re going to buy a computer, there should be no question which one you should get: The Commodore 64. You can learn more by reading the full-page ad to the right that features none other than William Shatner. Can you believe how thin he is?

Conclusion

We thought we would conclude this with a quick sample “program” which is a line of codes written in the language we mentioned, BASIC. You can try this out yourself on your Commodore 64 or TRS-80.

10 PRINT “The clear winner between”

20 LET C = “Commodore 64”

30 LET T = “Radio Shack Trash-80”

40 LET S = “Shatner”

50 PRINT C

60 PRINT “and”

70 PRINT T

80 PRINT “is”

90 PRINT C

100 PRINT “And we love”

110 PRINT S

120 REM SlashDot Rules and Byte Magazine Sucks

130 GOTO 90

The future is here!

 

Image: Mikael Hjerpe

Comments

One Response to “Radio Shack TRS-80 vs. Commodore 64: Battle of the Titans”

December 16, 2015 at 12:01 am, Yomar Lopez a.k.a. Yogizilla said:

A lot of people foolishly believe the C64 was the most powerful PC of the time because they equate sales with power. I constantly have to wrestle with gamers that their systems will never be able to keep up with the PC because that’s not the nature of console gaming. When I look back to this era, it’s clear how ahead microcomputers were.

Compare the 2K of main system RAM on the NES to the 4-512K here (that’s almost a whole Megabyte, folks).. That’s a huge gap. Of course, it call comes down to third-party support: the software that’s available, the functionality of the hardware, and how well developers take advantage of the feature sets.

Thinking back to those early days, it’s amazing how much we were able to do with such limited hardware. To think that the Atari 2600 and NES had similar specs yet their offerings were vastly different from each other. I find it all very fascinating.

So, my question to anyone stumbling across this post: what do you think were the best gaming and computing platforms of the early 80s, late 80s, early 90s and late 90s? This should make for a fun discussion! 8)

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